ST. LOUIS – The planned use of a common anesthetic in a Missouri execution next month is raising concerns that the anti-death penalty European Union could limit export of the drug, endangering the supply of a vital medication used every day in thousands of American hospitals and clinics.
The execution scheduled for Oct. 23 would be the first to use propofol, which is by far the nation’s most popular anesthetic.
About 50 million vials are administered annually in about 15,000 locations. That’s about four-fifths of all anesthetic procedures, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Propofol is popular because it works quickly, and patients wake up faster with fewer side effects such as post-operative nausea.
Roughly 85 percent of the U.S. supply of propofol is made in Europe, where capital punishment is outlawed, by the German company Fresenius Kabi. Export is controlled by the European Union, which prohibits trade in goods that could be used for executions. The EU is reviewing whether to subject propofol to that rule.
If it is added to the regulation, propofol would be subject to export controls, not a complete ban, EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said.
Still, any change in export practices could have a drastic effect on propofol’s availability in the U.S., said Matt Kuhn, a spokesman for Fresenius Kabi USA. “It’s a real concern,” he said Friday. “And it could have enormous public health implications.”
Fresenius Kabi has launched a website specifically to address the ramifications of using propofol in a U.S. execution, http://propofol-info.com.
The Food and Drug Administration is worried about any move that could affect access to propofol. FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson said the agency is weighing how to reach out to European officials to ensure the drug remains readily available.
“We do consider this a critical need,” she said. “Without the drug, we’re concerned that surgeries would be delayed and patients would be at risk.”
Until recently, Missouri and other states with the death penalty used virtually the same three-drug protocol. That changed in recent years as drugmakers stopped selling the traditional execution drugs to prison officials because they didn’t want them used for lethal injections.
Last year, the Missouri Department of Corrections turned to propofol, which made headlines in 2009 when pop star Michael Jackson died after overdosing on the drug. So far, Missouri is the only state to adopt propofol for executions, though it has not yet put anyone to death with the drug.
The October execution involves Allen Nicklasson, who was convicted of killing a man who stopped to help after Nicklasson’s car broke down on a highway in 1994. About a month later, Joseph Franklin is scheduled to die for a fatal 1997 shooting at a St. Louis area synagogue.